Whitespace: Five generations. One workplace: Welcome to the future.

Issue 54: October 2009

A new generation is on its way to a workplace near you. In the next few years Generation Z will be fronting up to work alongside Traditionalists, Boomers, Xs and Ys in a trend that offers both challenges and opportunities for managers.

To prepare you for the onslaught, this month's Whitespace looks at three key developments that will emerge as the five generation workplace becomes a reality.

The external knowledge bank

Advances in digital technology aren't just shrinking the world, they're also diminishing the memories of younger generations.

According to Harvard Business, in the mid-eighties the percentage of knowledge a worker needed to retain in their minds to perform well was 75 per cent; the other 25 per cent was accessed by reading documentation, such as manuals.

But thanks to the Internet, workers now only need to retain around 10 per cent of work related knowledge to perform well. The rest is accessed through omnipresent knowledge banks from intranets to Facebook – a second nature habit that's been readily embraced by the X and Ys.

In a finding that backs this point, a recent Microsoft study suggests Australians are increasingly using mobile phones as memory banks. The study found just 50 per cent of Australians surveyed know their own office phone number.

Who's a team player?

After studying the behaviours of successive generations, researchers Strauss and Howe have determined that each age-based social grouping consists of either predominantly team players or individualists.

According to Brazen Careerist, the Boomers were team players, Gen X individualists. The next in line, the Ys, have shown themselves to be team focused, which suggests the Zs will be solo players.

Rather than being a hindrance to collaboration, this kind of behavioural difference suggests natural synergies between alternating generations as well as the status quo breaking benefits of throwing individualists into the mix.

Communicating difference

While a large number of Traditionalists and Boomers certainly don't mind a talkfest (some actually crave them), more tech-savvy groups like the Xs and Ys want their information delivered in bite sized pieces.

So how do you support one group's desire for long-form communication and at the same time embrace instant messaging, remote work or short and sharp teleconferences?

Certainly it's a difficult balancing act. But one that can be achieved by understanding that when faced with plethora of communication channel choices, face-to-face is king for all demographics – a point made by Deloitte research on generational communication.

Generalisations about generations

Oscar Wilde might have quipped that generalisations are odious. However, in the case of generational groupings a growing body of research suggests we are shaped collectively by our formative years.

The Traditionalists and Boomers have had a real and lasting impact on the workplace; these environments will soon be remodeled by the Ys in their own tech-savvy, transient image. But the real surprise package could be today's hyper-connected teens and tweens.

After being exposed to recession, terrorism and on-demand media as well as being armed with a passion for sustainability their input will make for fascinating five generation water cooler conversations in the near future.

Breaking it down


  • Aged 63 plus
  • Not ready to leave work just yet for either financial or lifestyle reasons


  • Also called the 'silent generation' because they don't like to make a fuss
  • Prefer face-to-face interaction over email or teleconferencing
  • Fine with long meetings and lectures

Key consideration

Not being used to their full advantage - it's claimed the economy is losing $10.8 billion a year by failing to use the skills and experience of older Australians who want to work.

Baby Boomers

  • Aged 63 to 45
  • Currently the largest group in the workforce


  • Hold most of the world's power and authority
  • Work centric and define themselves by their position
  • Strongly believe in face time

Key trait

This workaholic generation has defined the modern workplace. Many still hold the world's power, others, like Traditionalist workers, aren't being used effectively as mentors.

Gen X

  • Aged 45 to 33
  • Will never be the major workforce grouping


  • Independent and cynical
  • Prone to rely on their own experiences as opposed to experts
  • Want flexibility and readily changeable careers

Key trait

Their freethinking approach presents a valuable source of new ideas.

Generation Y

  • Aged between 32 to 12 


  • Positive and confident
  • Keen for on-going (and even daily) feedback
  • Traditional career pathways don't always appeal

Key trait

By 2015 they will be largest group in the workforce and will redefine workplaces in their own hyper-connected, team-playing image.

Generation Z

  • Aged 12 and below
  • Have never known a world without mobile technology


  • Altruistic, will focus on CSR and environment
  • May return to traditional values
  • Possibly the most educated generation in history

Key trait

It's early days, but prepare yourself for a highly-educated generation that may focus more on 'doing good by being good' than any other.

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